"You should write a book about your travels.", the gift shop lady said. "Actually, so many friends asked me to send them emails to let them know I'm still alive that one suggested I just write a blog. That way everyone who's interested can check and see if I've croaked.", I replied. "I don't know about that internet. There's just so much bad stuff out there. You hear about it all the time. And you on that motorcycle, that's so dangerous. We had a guy killed here last year.", she said. "There's always a reason not to do a thing. You can play it perfectly safe and let the years roll on but in the end there'll be so little that you'll do.", I commented. "Yup. That's what I want. To die safely on my couch. Adventure is not for me.", she replied.
That comment surprised me.
There is so much to be afraid of. There are so many risks. Even she agreed that she would get into a car. I've known far more people who've died or gotten seriously injured in cars than on motorcycles.
It got me to thinking again about risk.
In Fairbanks, I was talking to a guy from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I mentioned to him that I was beginning to consider the long trip down. "Don't do it! Buenos Aires and much of South America is just terrible. Terrible! If you are European, Canadian, American they kidnap you. Chop off an ear or a finger and send it to you family. Hundreds. Thousands of people kidnapped in this way! I left. Got out of there.", he said being obviously agitated by the subject.
I've heard these stories too often. Everyone knows some story of bad things that happened to someone in South America. I know people who've had to leave South America because they were being persued. But what's the real risk? Why does this risk affect me more than the risk of motorcycling?
I think it's "unknown" risk. The Dalton Highway was supposed to be this impossible road. It was a cakewalk, possibly because I was properly prepared. But "unknown" risks, the risks that we have no experience with, tend to magnify in our minds. I also know many people from South America. I know a few who live down there. I have a distant cousin, Cari, who lives in Buenos Aires. I've talked to a surprising number of riders who have done the trip down. They didn't have any problems. But yet, the risk seems unmanageable in my mind. I feel the same way about the Middle East. Maybe it's that I feel I would be a target, a target that would attract unwanted attention.
It's an irrational uneducated fear. It should be possible that mitigate and manage these risks somehow.
I ride a motorcycle over what many seem to think is difficult terrain. The downside risk is extreme. I could be mamed, paralyzed or die. Yet, I am willing to take this extreme risk. We all take the same risk every time we get in a car, but we don't think about it. It's a familiar risk. Everyone does it so we become numb to it.
There are other risks we take unconsciously.
Many people have asked me how I am able to afford the time off of work. How can I afford to do this? Aren't I afraid of not having enough for retirement? This is another form of risk I'm taking which may, eventually, have more serious consequences. It is something I worry about. The money I have spent on my bikes, my boat, and this trip add up to a non-trivial sum. I feel guilty about it. If I had responsibly saved that sum I would be much closer to having enough to live on in my later years.
That's the conventional wisdom. That's what makes sense to people. Get a good paying "secure" job. Climb the company ladder. Spend responsibly. Save. Worry about retirement.
I'm self employed, a kind of entrepreneur. I haven't had regular paycheck or something called a "job" in 17 years. I am responsible for making my own money. That's another kind of risk most people are not willing to take yet I take without even thinking twice about it. I actually view the opposite as extreme risk. By taking a job I am risking not having the upside potential of an enterprise I've built myself.
I've worked my ass off for the last 17 years. Most weeks I have put in 7 days. I've done 100 hour weeks for multiple nine month stretches. In part, as I stand now, I'm a burned out workaholic. And aside from having resolved the Nightmare, I don't really have much to show for that effort. We worked harder but many others far less experienced and technically savvy have gone on to become millionaires building huge companies.
It's funny the risks I'll take and the ones I won't. I'll gladly build a new business on a shoestring budget allowing myself to come close to bankruptcy doing it, but I won't risk involving outside parties such as venture capitalists or allow us to be bought. I fear that "unmanaged" risk. It seems to great to me.
It's just more irrational fear. A downside risk that is understood, that's been investigated and analyzed is far less of a problem than the unknown risks.
So it seems to me, what I need to realize is when I am confronted by a risk that seems unmanageable and scary, the trick is to identify the fact that's it's an unknown risk and study it. Make the unknown familiar. All risks can be mitigated to a greater or lesser degree. We all take extreme risks in some areas of our lives, such as getting into a car, but we won't take even small risks in other areas because we are irrationally afraid of them.
When I set out on this journey I thought this would be the "last big trip". As I contemplate my return trip now, I wonder what is the greatest risk I take?
Maybe the greatest risk I've taken in life is having lived a life that was not worth living.
"How many good years do you have left? Maybe 20 if that?", asked Matt in Fairbanks. "If that", I replied.
Something is going to have to change, otherwise this thing I call a life is just a waste of time.
Onto other topics ...
When perusing gift shops in Alaska, take heed. Most goods they sell are, in fact, not made in Alaska. Many are made in China, New York and other places. This is true even of the little native alaskan looking camp shacks you see along the sides of the road in the remote areas. Remember to ask.
It's time for me to get something to eat ... I will continue writing later. This connection is flakey and my "save draft" feature is not working for some reason, so I'll save this out and come back to it later ... my apologies to those who have "Watch Blog" turned on.
Two nights before, Eike and I had agreed we would meet at the restaurant at 8:30. I made sure to be a minute or two early. He was already there.
We talked for a while about his business, mine and growing companies. He's loathe to grow his business beyond what it is because he would have to deal with employees and additional taxes. I find myself also thinking I am loathe to grow a business that involves hiring people. I idealize businesses like plentyoffish.com, a one man show. Unfortunately, those are the rock-star businesses. Businesses that are more luck than skill.
I was hungry so I had a bite to eat. Low tide was to be at midnight. Eike and I wanted to get back to the salmon hatchery to see if we could spot any grizzlies. So, in typical German fashion, we decided that it would be best to arrive one and a half hours before low tide. This way we could watch the whole progression. At a little past 10 we left. Eike drove. He had a rental SUV.
It was a cloudy evening. "What business does that cloud have being that low?", I said, translated from German. Eike laughed. The clouds here in Valdez really are something worth seeing.
It had been a couple of days where everything I said was false. Regardless of what I would state, it would turn out to be false. "This is not a parking spot." False. "You are supposed to be able to walk up to the glacier.". False. "The salmon hatchery is just around the corner.". False.
If it had persisted any longer I would have developed a complex. At least I didn't say, "Grizzlies are harmless.".
We arrived at what I thought was the salmon hatchery. False. I was 200 or more meters off. It was quite a scene. Eagles were waiting patiently as were an array of fishermen.
There was this sense of anticipation in the air. It was more than a human thing. It was as if the animals around felt it too. We were all gathered for a common purpose, to witness the salmon running.
Eagles flew overhead.
As we passed, a fisherman said there were grizzlies ahead around the bend. In the SUV, we continued on all the while I said "I think this is where he meant.". False. We turned around and headed back to where the fisherman said they would be ... still no sign. "False again.", I said. Eike laughed. We creeped along and suddenly a number of cars stopped.
A momma and her three cubs were playing in the grass next to the road. Watching these majestic beasts play, you couldn't help but feel there was something familiar about it, something human. The mother bear was gentle yet playful with her cubs. A cub would jump on her back and she would, gently, fling it over onto the grass with her huge arm. There was a patience to her that was unexpected. The sense of care could be felt from a distance. They played and harrassed each other as if completely oblivious to the attention they were getting.
Every once in a while the the mother bear would peer up at the onlookers, but for the most part just paid attention to her cubs.
Eike got out his gun fearing the grizzlies might attack. From my perspective, bear spray ready in my pocket, it seemed to me that as long as we didn't bother them they wouldn't bother us.
Midnight was still a ways off but I got the sense the grizzlies knew exactly what time it was and were biding their time playing in the grass.
Watching these critter play it was so easy to forget how awesomely dangerous they can be. There was this urge to join in the fun and romp around with them. Of course, such an action would be Very Ill Advised. Well, that is as long as one didn't have a death wish.
Midnight arrived which was low tide. Unlike before the water didn't empty out to the same degree so we didn't see the massive numbers of salmon we had hoped to. Fishermen attempted to pull out what they could from the deep water.
The grizzlies, moving as if the humans were irrelevant, crossed the road.
The hatchery cleared of fishermen. Everyone waited on the road while the grizzlies made their way down river. It took quite some time.
We decided it was time to go. The tide was not low enough and the bears were gone. We had seen what we had come to see. If I had not met Eike I would not have seen any of this.
He dropped me off at my hotel. Unceremoniously, he said he might join me on the boat cruise the next day depending on the weather otherwise he would be on his way. We parted company. I went to my room and crashed.
I didn't sleep well, again. Morning came too early, again.
I went and had an omellete for breakfast. I got an Americano (watered down espresso) at one of the stands and made my way to the Lulu Belle boat for my 6 hour tour.
It was a good sized boat. I'll have to look it up how large it was but I would guess 75 feet. I talked to the captain briefly. He said he had bought the bare hull in '76 and built the boat up from that himself in a span of 10 months. Amazing. The quaility of the craftsmanship in the boat is truly impressive. I can't imagine doing that amount of work.
Then again, I can't believe my cousin Olaf built the house that he did.
It was a semi-plaining trawler type boat. We headed out into the sound. There was an oil spill recovery practice operation under way.
One thing that impressed me about this tour was that it was somewhat open ended. The tour would last between 6 and 8 hours depending on the wildlife enountered.
We saw sea otters. Cute critters.
These are supposed to be an indicator species. If they are present it is supposed to mean the environment is healthy, which is impressive given that a huge oil port is located here.
As we continued on the captain slowed the boat saying that we should look at the back of the approaching vessel.
The woman on the boat said they were 400lb "Salmon sharks". Similar to how I felt about the moose, it seemed to me the world would be a better place with these huge creatures terrorizing the seas than lying lifeless on some boat.
We also passed a huge number of sea lions. The captian did not seem to like sea lions. They stank.
At one point the captain decided to try to show his guests some puffins. These puffins were supposedly cooped up in a cave on the coast of this island. To my surprise he put the bow of the boat in the cave with only a few feet to spare on each side.
Despite the size of the boat, he did not have a bow thruster and instead relied solely on the rear two engines. Now I could probably have done the same maneuver. I am told I'm a fairly good boat pilot, but I do not believe I could do this reliably day after day. I figure I would hit the rocks one in five days I tried it, at least.
And we saw whales!
Hump back whales are as difficult to photograph as dolphins. They are just camera shy. They pop up for a frustrating second then dive under the water for tens of minutes.
And then they have the audacity to surface where ever they pleased, which was always exactly where you didn't have your camera pointed.
After spending quite a while hunting whales, we turned our attention to the glacier which was breaking apart enough to cause quite a huge number of icebergs. I kept invoking the Titanic as the sound of icebergs scraping against the hull made me uneasy.
I would be very nervous piloting through these waters. Fear again.
I asked a nice lady if she could take my photo. I'm trying to get more photos of my ugly mug for this blog. (to which I should point out that I have been chided from Ireland, I think it was, for referring to my ugly mug as my ugly mug ... she seemed to think it was Not True and was undermining my credibility ... could be. But I still refer to my ugly mug as my ugly mug because, well, I'm old and set in my ways and I look in the mirror and I see an ugly mug ... oftentimes I will complain to waitstaff at restaurants that the mirrors in the mens room is broken 'cause sumpin' unappealing keeps staring back at me blankly.)
And we got as close to the tidal glacier as we could ... which was 8 miles away.
Some years ago before this ice field formed, the boat could travel all the way to the face of the glacier. It was in the high thirties with a strong breeze here. I was uneasy about being in this ice field in a fiberglass boat. One could hear the ice scrape the hull as the boat passed too close to one iceberg or the other. I kept imagining being on my boat navigating this icefield.
The Alaska Pipeline terminates in Valdez. Tankers come in to transport the oil to poinits south. According to the boat captain, Valdez is the northernmost port that remains free during the winter, which is why this location was chosen.
It made for a nice symmetry to the trip. I saw the beginning of the pipeline at Prudhoe Bay. On a whim I rode the length of the it. And here, I saw the end of it.
The evening was uneventful. Restaurants close early here. Only a few stay open past 9PM. I talked to a couple of older guys from Wisconsin. "If it's a bear, we shoot it. We don't care.", one said at one point. They knew somebody with a boat and were here to go fishing.
I didn't sleep well again. In the morning, I noticed that I was being stalked by a vorpal.
It's been a long time since I've seen a "normal" critter. But this vorpal was black. They're not supposed to be black, are they? Evil black vorpal bunny.
This day marked the start of my trip back. I spent too many days in Fairbanks and Valdez. As a result, I'm starting to feel the pressure to return. I had said I would be back during the first week of August. It looks like this is going to slip into the second week of August, but I don't want it to get any later than that. I've been gone a long time and soon it will be time to "get back to it", unfortunately.
Phil and Geo have changed their trip a bit and are going to ride out and meet me in Thunder Bay, Ontario. So my plan is to ride straight there across Canada instead of taking the northern route through the States. It's another redirection. I hadn't considered going across Canada, but who knows what I'll find as a result?
I sat at the same restaurant, the Totem Inn, that I had gone to each morning. I spoke to the owner a bit about the differences between his business and mine. There are times when I think it would be nice to run a business that doesn't involve creativity and invention each and every day. A hotel. It's a nice simple business that everyone can understand.
It was raining and cold again in Valdez. I left town. Along the way, as usual, I felt compelled to take the obligatory beautiful mountain photo.
In the middle of nowhere I stopped at a campground/gas station and talked to the owner there. This was on the Tok highway bypass, or whatever they call it. He had moved here from upstate New York to get away from all the rude people.
And, of course, there's the obligatory panorama.
There was alot more I wanted to write, but the connectivity here is TERRIBLE. In the last little bit it's gotten a bit better so I was able to get this done, but it's not what I wanted it to be. I have to check out in 15 minutes so I've got to pack up my gear and get going.
Hopefully I'll have better connectivity in Whitehorse tonight.
wow, the memories of Alaska this brings flooding back are just endless, never went to valdez but many places much the same (lived on Kodiak island for a few years, you should check it out), feel bad that you never got right up on a glacier, its something else, they have receded massively since I was a kid, I worked at one (tourist cruise like the one you went on) when i was 19 and one night heading back to college in the city I snagged an ice burg, probably 3x2x2 feet but 150lbs, deep dark almost turquoise blue, threw it in the trunk of the car and took it to the dorms to have ice that hadn't been water in millions of years for our vodka. thought of that when you put up a couple "you know you are in alaska when.." pics
I'm really savoring the perspective you offer, so much i could not help but take for granted, never in a million years would have thought anything of the clouds in valdez. wow. dear friend of mine i grew up with, rode dogsled after school with (yes, really), happens to live near you (more small world)... once said to me when i was getting wound up in my own trappings much like you describe about your nightmare time and sort of corrected me like only a friend of 30+ years can, set me straight a bit on my complaint, so i thanked him and apologized and then he said some of the wisest words I've ever heard: "thats ok, it is easy to lose perspective, even easier than losing money"
thank you for so much perspective, awesome.